Q: My anxious 11-month-old rescue dog goes through rounds of panic and alert barking, and my trainer suggested giving it calming natural remedies like valerian root, Bach flower remedies and catnip extract. What natural remedies are safe to be given to my pooch and which would you recommend?
A: Training and behaviour modification or desensitisation is definitely the first choice, as this can produce lasting changes that actively change the dog’s response to stressors. But, in some cases, the behaviour does not change, or only partially changes, and there is a need for further treatment. Orthodox medical approaches often use a combination of medications like benzodiazapines to quell anxiety, and may be combined with antidepressant type medications (serotonin reuptake inhibitors). These can also be used in conjunction, or apart, from newer pheromone treatments like dog-appeasing pheromones, which mimic the scent given off by a female dog to calm her puppies. This product can be used as a spray or as a collar.
There are also several natural approaches to calming a dog. As mentioned, Bach flower remedies, in particular the common combination in Rescue Remedy, can be of great value in some dogs, and can be used specifically in times of stress, or anticipated stress (like a vet visit). There are also several safe herbs that can be used for calming, including skullcap, passion flower, valerian and camomile. These herbs are not fast-acting and will work over a period of days/weeks as a supplement, but using them long-term can negate their efficacy. A dose of 20 to 30mg per day of active herb is adequate. L-Theanine, an amino acid, is also quite useful at 25mg per day. Magnesium, in the form of a chelated (protein bound) mineral supplement is quite effective at calming a hyper-excited nervous system (approximately 5mg of active magnesium per day). Other supplements include gamma amino butyric acid at 25mg per day, and another amino acid, tryptophan (often supplied as 5 hydroxytryptophan), at 10mg per day. Tryptophan is a precursor of seratonin, a neurotransmitter that is important for mental calmness. And finally, vitamin B6 (pyrodoxine) at 2mg per day.
All of the above are safe to use in dogs, but none should be used for any great length of time, as they should be considered medicine and not nutritional supplements.